Category Archives: Deep Thoughts

6-7 June 2016: Little Big Horn Battlefield

In the annals of American history, there are events that mark breaks in the trajectory. For many of us, the assassination of President Kennedy was one. Something spun out of control in our history at that point, launching the sixties, and setting us on a course that made us a different country than we were previously destined to be. One of my favorite books, Coming Apart by Charles Murray, shows how every aspect of our country’s founding values (in terms of religion, marriage, hard work, honesty, and so on) started to change for the worse at that point. For that reason, one destination on my bucket list is Dealey Plaza, just to see the physical place where the event occurred that changed us forever.

In the nineteenth century, one can make the point that a similar breakpoint occurred with the Battle of Little Big Horn. As Stephen Ambrose made clear in Custer and Crazy Horse (which I read especially for this trip), America was on a cultural collision course with native Americans. On the one hand was an industrious and industrial, productivity-minded, land-owning, free enterprise culture, undergoing an explosive growth in population, and on the other was a primitive culture that appeared to Americans as indolent and backwards. What was to become of the Great Plains, for example? Use them for farmland and ranches to feed a growing population, building wealth for future generations in the process (the American imperative), or leave them unused as nothing but rangeland for wandering buffalo (the native American alternative)?

The clash kept recurring, with a result that one “arrangement” after another would be made between American settlers and native populations, with the arrangements not working out very well for either side, and with both sides (not just the Americans, in my view) repeatedly violating the agreed-upon terms. Something eventually would have to give. My suspicion (which I admit may not stand up to scrutiny by knowledgeable historians) is that both sides knew the process was futile: despite all of the treaties, the various peace delegations, splits in factions on both sides, everyone probably knew that one side was going to win and one side was going to lose. Ultimately, there would never be a middle ground.

In that context, on June 25, 1876, a force of maybe 2000 Sioux and Cheyenne Indians, led by Sitting Bull as the diplomatic leader and Crazy Horse as military leader, encountered the 7th Cavalry Regiment under the command of Lt. Col. (brevet Major General) George Armstrong Custer. The rest, as they say, is history. When word of Custer’s defeat reached the East, ironically in July 1876, right at the moment America was celebrating its centennial, relishing it past successes and giddy over its future prospects, the fact that Indians had defeated one of America’s most celebrated heroes was more than the country could stand. One can almost hear a collective response, “OK. That’s it. Enough is enough. Let’s put an end to this once and for all.” As a result of that battle, large military forces were sent west, and within a few years Crazy Horse was dead, Sitting Bull had surrendered, and the west was opened for America’s “Manifest Destiny.” It reminds me of Pearl Harbor. In a way, the enemy may have “won,” but that hollow victory unleashed forces that would leave the “victor” utterly destroyed.

So, here we are in the very place where that shift in the historical trajectory occurred. And besides its historical significance, it’s also a military memorial, a national cemetery, a place where American soldiers fought and died. In all ways, it is for me a place that is both dramatic and holy.

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Atop “Last Stand Hill,” looking down towards the Visitor Center. About 5 miles to the south were Reno and Benteen. Through a massive program of GPS mapping and archeology, the place where each soldier fell is relatively well known and is marked by a headstone. Some of the headstones bear names, but most just say, “A soldier of the 7th Cavalry fell here.” The national cemetery is visible just past the Visitor’s Center.

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The ravine in which Calhoun’s forces were trying to move to link up with Custer. It’s not really clear from this photograph, but one can see how Calhoun’s troops were using classic fire-and-maneuver tactics, with a series of headstones marking each place where they stopped to provide fire and were overwhelmed. All of Calhoun’s forces were killed.

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The memorial erected atop Last Stand Hill, I believe in 1881. It marked the place of a mass grave, commemorating the place where 249 soldiers were buried. Some of the bodies were later relocated. Custer is now buried at West Point.

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One final thought: Both Wendy and I were a little nervous about seeing the National Battlefield Monument. Our tour guide was a Crow Indian, there is the recent (2003) “Indian Memorial” at the monument, and as one would expect in these times, much of the narrative here extolled the virtues of native American culture. But overall, our fears were unwarranted and things were just fine. The presentations and displays very much honored the American soldiers and, although the native American perspective was included, it did so without in any way diminishing the bravery and sacrifice of the officers and men of the 7th Cavalry.

And one other thing occurred to us both. There are times in history when both sides are right, where both sides are fighting for something noble. To my mind, as I listened to the presentations and pondered the significance of this battle, that was true here. Whatever the deficiencies of the Indian’s “traditional way of life,” and why I think clinging to the traditional ways was not a good choice, every culture has a right to decide for itself how it wants to live, and an insistence on the right of self-determination is a noble ambition. Here, I think, both sides are worthy of honor, and the Monument does a good job of doing that.

Definitely a good stop.

So, that’s about it for the special stops on our way out west. We now have three days of pedal-to-the-metal travel (which means creeping along at 60 miles per hour for us old people) before we arrive at Robert’s. We’ll post some concluding thoughts when we get there.

February 2016: Everglades National Park

Forty-four years. Forty-four years ago, when Wendy and I were traveling around the country, without an agenda, with nothing to do but to enjoy each other and this country, staying in national and state parks as we traveled eastward, we promised each other, “We’ll do this again someday.” And here we are. It looks like this will be the year when we see national parks spanning the country from the Everglades to Glacier. And not only are we embarking at long last on fulfilling a decades-old promise, we are doing so in the centennial year of the National Parks system.

Everglades National Park is a fitting beginning, different from anything we’ve ever done before. While most national parks were established to preserve some dramatic panorama for future generations of visitors (imagine Teddy Roosevelt seeing Yellowstone for the first time), Everglades was established solely to protect an ecosystem. Over 1.5 million acres of what is essentially a slow-moving river (only 1/4-mile per day), a “river of grass,” as is said, 60 miles wide and only a few inches deep, flowing from Lake Okeechobee southward towards Florida Bay.

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After a quick stop at the visitor center at the entrance, we drove the 38 miles to the Flamingo campground, visitor center, and marina.

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Set up at Flamingo Campground. (And yes, I did set up my ham radio station, although I only had time to operate for a few minutes.)

And once here, we wasted no time in doing what we like best about such places: visiting the educational displays, attending the ranger talks, and generally exploring what makes each national park worthy of its stature.

But here, because the Everglades does not exist to preserve things worth seeing, experiencing the Everglades is different than the western parks we’ll visit this summer. Here, the experience is quieter and subtler. It is not less spiritual, but spiritual in a difference sense, not so much standing in awe of the grandeur of creation but more marveling at the intricacy and complexity of the created order in its hidden spaces. As one of the rangers said, the Everglades “whispers” its message.

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The “river of grass” at the Snake River slough, “only” 6 miles wide.

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At Snake River slough, a barred owl hooting away back in a thicket.

One day we tour a boat tour through the mangroves lining the Buttonwood Canal, through Coot Bay, and into Whitewater Bay.

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Baby American Crocodile, and no one even noticed his big brother behind him!

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The deadly Manchineel tree: “Standing beneath the tree during rain will cause blistering of the skin from mere contact with this liquid (even a small drop of rain with the milky substance in it will cause the skin to blister). … ingestion [of the sweet, apple-like fruit] may produce severe gastroenteritis with bleeding, shock, bacterial superinfection, and the potential for airway compromise due to edema. … Juan Ponce de León was struck by an arrow that had been poisoned with Manchineel sap during battle with the Calusa in Florida, dying shortly thereafter.”

And we even did a ranger-guided canoe trip on a five-mile canoe trail out and back from Nine-Mile Lake. The trip provided a bit of comic relief since, firstly, we are old, feeble geezers who don’t know how to paddle a canoe, and secondly, the wind was howling at 15 miles per hour, gusting to 25, which meant the canoe frequently got caught by the wind and headed sideways into the swamp. Still, it was a great morning.

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We also “experienced” the Everglades in one of its less appealing aspects: mosquitos. We’re told that this is an “unusual” winter. It may be. This winter has been wetter than usual (normal rainfall in January is 2.5 inches, but this year it was 12.5 inches), and one can imagine that the surplus of standing water has given the little suckers a windfall of breeding sites. Either way, we ventured out only when slathered with DEET and the first few moments inside the camper were always spent trying to clap in mid-air fast enough to squish the little beasts between our palms.

We took advantage of one surprising opportunity for a side trip to the old Nike missile base, now a historical site within the Park.

For people of my era, the cold war, and in particular the Cuban missile crisis, is not only part of our history, it is part of our being. It’s easy to joke about the backyard bomb shelters and the “duck and cover” drills in elementary school, but I remember, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, going with my mom to the grocery store, and everything was gone. Everything. I stood there seeing nothing but empty shelves. No milk, no produce, no bread, no canned goods. Nothing. And even as a twelve-year old, I was convinced that war was upon us. Fireballs were going to light up the sky, and for those not immolated by blasts, it was going to be a nasty battle for survival. Memories like that formed us all, and they are part of us even today.

The crisis started in October 1962 when U2 spy planes overflying Cuba saw that the Soviet Union had installed short- and medium-range missile bases in Cuba. A missile launched from Cuba could hit Washington D.C. in 13 minutes. The nuclear warheads for those missiles were on Soviet ships headed for Cuba, and Kennedy imposed a “quarantine” (that is, a blockade) around Cuba and threatened to destroy any Soviet ship that tried to run the blockade. The Soviets said they viewed the blockade as an act of war (it is), that they had every intention of running the blockade, and would use any means necessary, including nuclear weapons, to protect their freedom to navigate the seas. Kennedy then issued his famous threat that any use of nuclear weapons against anywhere in the western hemisphere would be met with an unlimited retaliatory counterstrike on the Soviet Union. The situation was escalating to the point that the very end of civilization was seemingly inevitable.

During this time, south Florida was the scene of a military buildup not seen since World War II. Hundreds of military trucks driving down the streets, military bombers landing at every airport available, and trucks and trains carrying missiles arriving every day. Even as the crisis subsided, we all realized that the threat to our very existence could come from as close as sixty miles south. In 1965, the National Park Service gave permission to the Defense Department to build a Nike missile base inside the Park to guard against that threat. That base survives today as a historical site: Nike Missile Base HM-69.

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Surprisingly, even though one can hardly imagine an experience less Everglades-ish than immersing oneself in the details of mutually assured nuclear destruction, both of us agree that the tour of the missile base was a highlight of the trip.

So, once again, we find ourselves leaving too soon. Too much to do and not enough time. In a sense, that’s the inevitable consequence of racing around Florida, spending only a few days in numerous places, as we scout out possible locations to escape Atlanta winters. But in other places giving short shrift to the locale was tolerable. Here, I wish I had made the Everglades a break in the place-to-place dash and booked a stop of at least a week. It deserves it. If we can make it back someday (I hope we can), we’ll definitely spend more time here, just listening to Everglades whispers.

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February 2016: Naples, FL

A friend suggested that, since I was heading off to Florida, I should read at least one of the books by Carl Hiaasen. I’d never heard of Hiaasen, so I read the reviews and picked Stormy Weather. As I learned, Hiaasen is an op-ed columnist for the Miami Herald with a political philosophy that does not, shall we say, align on very many points with my own. Which means that ordinarily I’d be reading his works only to the extent of my practice of being aware of how the enemy thinks. Except for two things. First, he is a gifted writer and the book Stormy Weather is hilarious. Second, the principal theme that runs throughout his books is particularly relevant to this trip: through the irresistible influence of developers, tourists, and corrupt politicians, Florida has been destroyed by some weird combination of vulgarity, venality, greed, and lunacy.

As I mentioned, we didn’t see any such thing in Cedar Key. We got a hint of the Hiaasen Complaint in Sarasota, mainly because of mile after mile of seemingly aimless traffic. But now, in Naples, we are confronted by the Hiaasen Complaint fully substantiated. It’s hard to describe this subculture. In the outskirts of Naples, it’s mile after mile of roads, sometimes seven lanes wide in each direction (that’s right–seven!), lined on both sides with mall after mall, all of them overflowing with shoppers! Stopping at a COSTCO to reprovision a few staples, we found the store so overflowing that the checkout lines, no kidding, extended so far into the store that there were “merge lanes” in the product aisles! Any break to the malls? Yes, but only where they were interrupted by garish, gated communities with signs proclaiming, “Homes to $2 Million Plus.”

Old town Naples, particularly the Fifth Avenue area, once one fights the traffic to get there, is chock-full of trendy restaurants and up-scale boutiques, neither of which is our style.

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But then, there’s “real Naples.” “Real” in the sense of “unreal.” As of June 2015, Naples has the highest per capita income of any city in America. Two-thirds of all American billionaires (“billionaires,” with a “b”) live in Naples. In the Port Royal area, homes go for $20 to $75 million, except that at the lower end of that range they’re basically tear-downs. Really. Some bargains can be had across the river, such as at Aqualane, where the homes are in the $10 to $20 million range, although that area is removed from the beach and one has to drive (not that!) to get to a beach. No wonder the homes are so devalued. Location, location, location. And this isn’t just a couple homes … we’re talking about dozens of homes spread across multiple areas. And, even weirder, 80% of the owners in these areas spend less than 4 weeks per year in their homes.

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Home of Dick Portillo, who sold his chain of Chicago hot dog restaurants to Berkshire-Hathaway, with his 112-foot Westport “Top Dog.”

So, what of the Hiaasen Complaint? One can certainly wag his finger at the populace here, full of disdain for those who don’t share one’s keen judgment and moral sensibility. I have to be somewhat careful about such moral superiority since I’m basically in the set being wagged at (as I expect Hiaasen is as well).  But putting aside all of that, the principal “appeal” of Naples just doesn’t hold much appeal for us. The climate is wonderful, the surrounding natural areas are great, and the people have been uniformly friendly and outgoing. But Naples qua Naples is basically uninteresting and can be easily skipped.

Speaking of the surrounding areas, we did have a chance to visit the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary (due to the recommendation of a friend, the same friend actually). Wow. Easily in the same class as the Lower Suwanee NWR, and a wonderful side-trip in the Naples area. Unfortunately, it has been an unusually wet January in this area, so the swamp, which is normally drying out this time of year, is pretty much flooded, which has made the area not as conducive to wildlife and bird viewing as normal. But still, it took us hours to walk along the 2-1/4 mile boardwalk, and we enjoyed every minute of it. We’ll be back.

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And, of course, numerous Bald Cyprus:

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For all of its appeal, though, I cannot avoid commenting that the Audubon Society does manifest a tendency to the very philosophical defect that plagues most environmentalist thinking, namely the elevation of “nature” over people. For example, one series of displays shows the increasing number of people and the decreasing number of wading birds in south Florida, exponentially trending in opposing directions. Implied in the display is, “Look! This is terrible! People are going up and birds are going down!” So what? I thought. I wanted to collar some hapless Audubon volunteer with a confrontation, “OK … birds like south Florida and people like south Florida. What’s the right balance? People have to eat, which means we need farmland. We need homes and paper products, both of which mean harvesting trees. How much and where? People enjoy a warm, temperate climate in the winter. What’s your plan to meet that simple aspect of human welfare?” I didn’t. I actually think of the Audubon Society as being on the more reasonable end of the environmentalist spectrum, but I found the content of their message long on doctrine and short on sensible, balanced messaging. Still, it’s a great place to visit.

Otherwise, it’s been a relaxing week. We’ve spent some time here enjoying this wonderful RV resort, which is about the nicest RV resort we’ve ever been to, certainly in the category of the RV resorts in Cashiers and Hilton Head, although our little ACE looks a little out of place.

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To their credit, no one really seems to mind that we’re definitely the trailer trash of the neighborhood. There was a huge gathering for the Superbowl. There are community breakfasts every morning. One night we got together with a bunch of the residents for a “spirited” (read: “highly competitive”) game of trivia. And one night a local guide came by and gave a fascinating talk on fishing in the Chokoloskee Island/Thousand Islands area of Florida. This resort is probably a little out of our budget for long-term stays, but this is definitely one of the better watering holes around and a great place to camp out while seeking warmer climes.

September 2015: Riverbend Campground (Hiawassee, GA)

It’s been a L-O-N-G time since our last trip (May, to Land Between the Lakes), which is probably why I’ve been spending hours and hours (and more hours) relentlessly planning future trips. Month after month of no real RV’ing demands at least a virtual substitute. But now we’re here, for real, at Riverbend Campground in Hiawassee, Georgia.

But first — a digression. People often say that RV’ing is as much about the journey as the destination. So far, though, I’m not sure I’ve really figured out the journey thing. I think I’m pretty good about the destination part, and very good at figuring out how to get to the destination, but not so good at unplanned stops in the middle, much less a significant deviation that would take me off-route, delay the arrival, and (heaven forbid) potentially cause a rewrite of the entire plan.

This trip has taught me a lesson about the “journey” aspect of RV’ing. En route from LaGrange to Hiawassee, our practice of stopping every couple hours was thwarted by the fact that the portion of the trip in the 1-3 hour slot was all Atlanta urban hell, with no real place to take a relaxing break. Not even a rest area or tolerable gas station. So we found ourselves coming up on Blue Ridge, Georgia, after four hours of driving, road-weary, hungry, with both us and the dogs ready for a potty break, when Wendy spied a sign that said, “Fannin County Veterans Memorial Park.” “Turn here,” she said, and off we went on a “it’s all about the journey” detour down some narrow country road.

What a treat! Off the path, in Blue Ridge (population 1290), is a memorial to those men of Fannin County that have died in this nation’s wars. One obelisk for every war, with the names of the dead inscribed on each. Surrounding the park, all of the flags were at permanent half-staff. A plaque proclaims Duty-Honor-Country. And a Huey UH-1, with 1st Air Cav markings, sits on display.

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And here’s the best part. The Memorial Park sits next to the Fannin County Middle School. Which means that every day, those kids go to school under the shadow, literally, of those who died so that they could go to school. Do the kids of that school realize the significance of what stands across the parking lot? Probably not. But will they someday hear an echo of voices telling them that duty to country sometimes demands the last full measure of devotion? I’m sure they will. In my mind’s eye, I can see a day when America is attacked and, for reasons some guy can only vaguely sense, he feels compelled to take up a gun and fight for his country. And those ghosts in the memorial who watched over him as a kid can rest well knowing the enduring influence of their sacrifices. Maybe what this country really needs is a veterans memorial on the grounds of every school in the nation.

Back to camping…

This trip was to Riverbend Campground, near Hiawassee. Very nice campground, with the Hiawassee River running right behind our site.

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By chance, the FMCA Georgia Mountaineers chapter was at the campground, so we sat around and chatted with them for a while. One benefit of traveling with fellow RVers, it seems to me, is being able to pick their brains on an infinity of RV topics. One topic we discussed was the best timing and route for touring the Utah National Parks, and the President of the chapter even sent me a fully fleshed out itinerary based on his experience. We may have to link up with such groups regularly in the future.

Saturday we hiked Brasstown Bald, and learned that it’s amazing how strenuous it can be when two old geezers try to walk one-half mile up a steep path to the observation deck. But what a view!

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Sunday it was off to see friends and go to church with them in Hayesville, NC (about 20 miles away), and then lunch, and then a couple more hikes.

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Which is cause for another digression. Over the years, I seem to have lost touch with lots of people … no excuse, just too much to do and a procrastinating personality. But as we travel around, it’ll be fun to reconnect with friends and distant family in California, Colorado, Arizona, Washington, the Northeast, the Southeast, and wherever else our mobile society scatters us.

Statistics for the trip:
Trip distance: 439 miles
Campground cost: $32 x 3 nights.
Mileage: 8.45 mpg (all but the last 100 miles towing the toad)

The tradition continues … again.

In a previous post, I recounted the long history our family had of camping as our children grew up, and noted with some satisfaction that Son #2 had carried on the family tradition by buying his own pop-up camper. Now, Son #1 has followed suit with his own pop-up camper! And started his own camping blog, kazadventures.com, which is a great read.

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All of which got me thinking. What is it about “camping,” in whatever form, even “camping” (such as it is) at Fort Wilderness, that holds this lasting quality? There are the obvious attributes: it’s a break from “real life,” it’s an encounter with nature (even if it’s only fishing in a pond or digging up worms), it’s family time (including time with the dogs). It’s sometimes just a chance to be uninhibited–we would ride our bikes around the campground in various fighter jet formations: finger-four, to single echelon, to diamond, and then, when someone was ready to stop, we’d buzz our own campsite in “missing man” formation. In any place but a campground, acting like that would get you a visit from DFACS. And, frankly, one main motivation for us was that camping is affordable; the overwhelming majority of our camping trips consisted of a 50-mile hop up to the Corps campgrounds at Lake Lanier. Twenty bucks for a weekend and we had an instant “vacation.”

But one other thing comes to mind, something that was true then but even more so in today’s world. Camping provides a chance to disconnect from one set of experiences and reconnect with others, more basic and, in today’s world, less virtual. Sometimes the reconnection is trivial, sometimes it’s deeply spiritual, and sometimes it’s both at the same time. Camping dispels the myth of “quality time.” Often life’s best and most memorable experiences don’t arise from highly organized, regimented, mandatory fun-drills; they occur spontaneously when you’re just goofing around doing not much. On one son’s first backpacking trip, we stopped for a break to take off our boots and give our feet a rest, and he looked up at me and said, in a way that only an eight-year-old can, “Dad, have you ever noticed how great it feels to take off your socks?” In a sense that’s the mission of a camping trip: a chance to get away and spend time, so to speak, taking off your socks.

Three sets of the family campers are scheduled for a link-up at Land Between the Lakes NRA over the weekend of May 14-17. (Daughter and her crew are tied up that weekend, but there will be others for that branch of the family.) So, with four Little Darlings, ages 2 to 5, in three adjacent campsites, the virtue of camping continues on.